2008 Nissan Altima Coupe
2008 Nissan Altima Coupe. Click image to enlarge

Review and photos by Jil McIntosh

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Minneapolis, Minnesota – Throughout most of automotive history, the lion’s share of sales has belonged to four-door sedans. It’s no wonder: four points of entry make it much easier for carrying passengers.

But drop that down to two, and a car just looks better, which is the story behind the all-new Nissan Altima Coupe. Arriving at dealerships this month, the coupe follows the sedan’s complete makeover in 2006, and the introduction of the Altima Hybrid sedan in January of this year. Designed and built in the U.S., the Coupe is for North America only; in a very gutsy move, Nissan introduced the styling not as a concept car, but in production-ready form, at the 2006 Los Angeles auto show.

2008 Nissan Altima Coupe
2008 Nissan Altima Coupe. Click image to enlarge

It’s not a sports car, but it’s sporty; it won’t have 350Z owners exchanging their keys, but the performance and handling – especially with the V6 – are enough to keep the average driver smiling broadly. Even so, I expect that much of the target audience will be those who come in initially for the design, and then realize that there’s some solid stuff behind it. That will undoubtedly include those who enter the showroom for the Altima sedan but prefer the Coupe’s lines, and those who’d like to get into an Infiniti G35/G37, but not its payments. The Coupe is intelligently priced, starting at $27,798 for the four-cylinder model, and $31,398 for the V6, with the automatic transmission adding $1,200 to each.

Although their lines are similar, the front-wheel drive Altima Coupe shares nothing with the rear-wheel drive Infiniti. It rides on the Altima sedan’s platform, but the wheelbase and the overhangs have been shortened, and the only shared sheet metal is the hood; the width is the same, however, which adds to the car’s attractive hunkered-down look. The result is a true coupe, not a two-door sedan.

2008 Nissan Altima Coupe
2008 Nissan Altima Coupe. Click image to enlarge

The powertrains are shared between the two- and four-door siblings, with the Coupe also getting the sedan’s 2.5-litre inline four-cylinder and 3.5-litre V6. Both engines start with a six-speed manual, and can be optioned to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). There might be a hybrid version one day, but definitely not in this generation; Nissan’s representatives say that, among other things, the placement of the battery pack in this coupe is too problematic. And a convertible? I got the standard corporate reply – “No comment on future plans” – which may say more than a mouthful nevertheless.

Nissan is putting a great deal of stock in its new, fuel-efficient transmission units; Corporate and Product Planning director Ian Forsythe says about half of all the automaker’s vehicles now use CVTs. Response is generally quite favourable, although I’ve found that transmission performance can vary, depending on the model, and I wasn’t that keen on it in a 2007 Altima sedan that I drove last year. Taking the Coupe through the endless farmlands of the American Midwest, though, it was an entirely different story. This automatic unit is tuned well to the engine and is smooth and unobtrusive, keeping the power right where it needs to be, and without the low-rpm drone that I’ve experienced in a couple of other Nissan products. Only on very hard acceleration was the unit’s unorthodox process even noticeable, when I waited for a shift that didn’t come, but that was the fault of my hard-wired expectations, not of the transmission. I didn’t get the opportunity to drive the stick-shift, but a colleague who did reported that it was also a very slick unit.

2008 Nissan Altima Coupe
2008 Nissan Altima Coupe. Click image to enlarge

As with the sedan version, the four-cylinder produces enough snort that I expect most buyers will stick with it. It makes 175 hp and 180 lb-ft of torque; in its presentation, Nissan pointed out that it overshadows the Toyota Solara’s 155/158, and the Honda Accord’s 166/160. This 2.5-litre debuted in 2001 but has undergone changes to some 20 per cent of its components, resulting in reduced noise and vibration, reduced friction, a slightly higher compression ratio, larger intake manifold and, with the dual exhaust, 35 per cent less exhaust back-pressure.

If I were putting it out of my own pocket, I’d probably get the I4 as well. It accelerates sharply off the line, helped a bit by a curb weight that’s about 43 kg under the sedan (the V6 has a 55 kg weight difference from its sedan sibling), and cruises quietly and steadily, with power in reserve when asked. I also like the fact that the four, like the V6, has twin tailpipes out the back, a must-have styling cue on a car this swoopy.

At 270 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque, the V6 also outperforms the targeted competition – the Solara makes 210/220, the Accord 244/211 – and it’s a really sweet powerplant, hitting triple-digit numbers (on a U.S.-spec miles-per-hour speedometer) without breaking a sweat. The CVT takes nothing away from its performance or its throaty sound, and the car’s front geometry eliminates almost all torque steer, even with that much power going to the front rims.

2008 Nissan Altima Coupe
2008 Nissan Altima Coupe. Click image to enlarge

Along with the power numbers, the big difference between the two versions is in the suspension. The four-cylinder is tuned for a softer ride, while the V6 is much sportier, sending notice of highway expansion joints and potholes into the cabin that the four soaks up beforehand. Both share a stiff chassis, but the four’s boulevard ride gives it a bit of roll in the corners, and enthusiasts will want the V6’s tighter setup to go with the extra power. I found the speed-sensitive steering to be a touch lighter than expected at higher speeds, but in the real world, I suspect that complaints will be few; they’ll be mostly from hard-core twisty-road fans who will undoubtedly be getting into the Infiniti anyway.

All models get four-wheel disc brakes as standard equipment; a new braking system is supposed to improve pedal feel, especially at highway speeds. My co-driver and I found our I4’s brakes grabby and hard to modulate, but the V6 was fine; our seat time was relatively short, and so I didn’t have a chance to try another four-cylinder for comparison.

2008 Nissan Altima Coupe
2008 Nissan Altima Coupe
2008 Nissan Altima Coupe. Click image to enlarge

The Coupe shares most of its interior with the sedan, but there are subtle differences: the seats are unique, providing more lateral support, and CVT-equipped models have a pull-up parking brake lever, rather than a floor-mounted pedal. It’s more 2+2, thanks to its shortened wheelbase, and the front passenger seat slides forward for access to the rear. It’s still very difficult, and you must twist and fold yourself to get back there, but once you do, the rear chairs offer more comfort than I would have expected. Still, that’s not the point of the car, and the back seat will undoubtedly serve simply as storage, or as the occasional short-haul for those stuck for a ride. The trunk is small, but the rear seats fold completely flat to increase cargo space.

Although my ride was a pre-production model, the interior was screwed together quite well, with even gaps, and like the new sedan, of much better quality than the previous Altima, which seemed almost brittle with its cheap cubby hinges and thin, hard plastic. My four-cylinder had a grey and beige interior that didn’t look as good as the V6’s darker, more cohesive cockpit, which also had more soft-touch materials. There’s a great deal of small-item storage, including a large centre console box and a cavern of a glovebox; cars without the optional six-CD changer also include a large covered cubby in the centre stack.

2008 Nissan Altima Coupe
2008 Nissan Altima Coupe
2008 Nissan Altima Coupe
2008 Nissan Altima Coupe. Click image to enlarge

Each engine size accompanies a single trim line: the four is the 2.5 S, and the V6 is the 3.5 SE. Shared features include air conditioning, power locks, automatic headlamps, heated mirrors, eight-way power driver’s seat, heated cloth seats, CD with six speakers and cruise control. Both also come with a proximity key and engine start button – a favourite of the techies, but I’d like to see these pointless things go the way of the dinosaur.

The move up to the 3.5 attests to the generous outfitting on the 2.5: the bigger engine model adds only automatic climate control, manual-folding heated power mirrors with integrated turn signal, manual lumbar support, and traction control.

The 2.5 can be optioned with a premium package that includes, among other things, leather seats, dual-zone climate control, auto-dimming rearview mirror, Bluetooth and an upgraded Bose six-CD stereo with satellite radio. The 3.5’s premium package is similar, but also adds Vehicle Dynamic Control and Xenon headlamps, and once that package is stapled in, buyers can further add a DVD-based navigation system with rear-view camera that isn’t available for the 2.5-litre.

Nissan anticipates selling 200 to 300 Coupes per year in Canada, as it says the market “is not that big.” Frankly, I’ll be surprised if that’s all they move out; this is a gorgeous car with a reasonable price-tag, and with the performance to back up its face. It’s not as practical as the Altima sedan, but when it looks this good, it doesn’t have to be.

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